'Working': Selling the Comedy
This past June, the Media Research Center's Free Market Project reported on prime time television's portrayal of business and the workplace. The study found that television "shows a cynicism toward business that it does not show toward any other" institution, that corporate executives frequently are depicted as either buffoons or sadists, and that the treatment of capitalism is "almost universally hostile."
If this sounds like an exaggeration, you've not watched the NBC sitcom "Working," which somehow manages to put all of these hostilities toward entrepreneurialism on display. "Working" debuted this fall and wasted no time in offering a highly negative view of corporations and those who run them. Given that the series (which airs Wednesdays at 9:30 Eastern) recently was renewed for the rest of the season, it seems appropriate to examine its toxic, one-sided messages.
"Working" stars Fred Savage (Kevin on "The Wonder Years") as Matt Peyser, who fresh out of college is hired at Upton/Webber, a multinational conglomerate that claims more than a million employees and gross earnings higher "than the GNP of all but nine countries on earth." Matt and his colleagues have their share of character flaws, but he, and they, are not the villains here. Those roles are reserved for Tim Deale, Matt's boss, and the Upton/Webber corporation itself.
Deale (Maurice Godin) is slimy, mean, and clueless. In other words, a businessman. In the premiere alone, he boasts that he has "a golden retriever drawing a salary," praises an employee for his "complete disregard for ethics and fair play," and, right after telling Matt how knowledgeable he, Tim, is about Upton/Webber, looks at a newspaper and learns the company has bought General Electric. For good measure, he's also a sexual harasser (one exceptionally talented woman is stuck in a clerical job because she won't go to bed with him), an adulterer (he stole another executive's wife), and a merciless snob (at a party he's hosting, Tim explains to Matt that the shrimp hors d'oeuvres are reserved for management, adding that employees at Matt's level should partake of the "Triscuits piled up on a blanket").
Deale's sleaziness didn't impede his rise within the company; it's made clear that it facilitated it. Old-fashioned virtues, on the other hand, are marginalized at Upton/Webber. After Matt claims that he got through college by dint of hard work, Tim responds, "Yeah, well, that kind of crap won't carry you here."
But Tim is middle management. This means that no matter how despicable he is, he's but a mere cog in the machine, only a pawn in the game played by the men at the top of the company. How cruel is the corporate - read: evil - mentality at Upton/Webber? This is a corporation that fires an accountant because he's a month from being vested in the pension plan, doing so even though it's his birthday and his wife has just died, leaving him to raise three children. It also makes shady contributions to politicians of both major parties and spies on its employees in their homes via satellite. America is ruled not by elected leaders but rather by faceless, ruthless captains of industry accountable to no one. Move over, "X-Files"; "Working" could be turning into the first sitcom built on a conspiracy theory.
This program is not a satire of a particular company so much as it is a broad skewering of big business and the market economy. The specifics of Upton/Webber - location, products, etc. - are glossed over, presumably so as to universalize the portrait of the evil corporation.
This is the real world of business - if you're from Hollywood. Interviewed by Entertainment Weekly, "Working" executive producer Michael Davidoff was asked where he got ideas for the show. "Well, it's based on various work experiences [Davidoff and co-executive producer Bill Rosenthal] have had. Namely Disney." But there's a broader cultural divide at play here, for Davidoff believes this is the way of free enterprise in the most general of terms: "We believe the same kind of weird office politics goes on no matter what industry you're in, whether it's the White House or the corner gas station."
Corporations and capitalism are flawed because human beings are flawed. Nonetheless, this imperfect free-market system has produced remarkable prosperity and happiness everywhere it has been tried, and nowhere more so than in this country. To ignore this is to create a new and most unhealthy reality. In the end, the potshots from "Working" are so much pulp fiction.